Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The Broadway epic The Lehman Trilogy, which tells the story of the Lehman Brothers and their finance company over the span of 164 years, rarely stops spinning. Es Devlin’s magnificent glass house of a set, designed to evoke the firm’s offices at the time of its collapse in 2008, rotates on a turntable as history moves forward; wrapped on the walls around it is a giant cyclorama, where Luke Hall’s black-and-white video design sweeps the action from New York Harbor to the antebellum South and beyond. Meanwhile, Stefano Massini’s play takes the raw materials of the Lehmans’ rise and fall and processes them into a vibrant yarn about greed and American values. It leaves you dazzled and a little dizzy.
This cautionary tale about capitalist excess is, in several senses, an embarrassment of riches. Many Broadway plays now clock in at under 90 minutes; The Lehman Trilogy is nearly three and a half hours long, with intermissions at the crisis points of the Civil War and the stock market crash of 1929. Director Sam Mendes’s dynamic production passes swiftly, though—it’s like binge-watching a creative documentary with three hour-long episodes—and it presents an engrossing survey of U.S. history since the middle of the 19th century. (Written by an Italian and adapted into English by the U.K.’s Ben Power, it assumes a slight distance from American culture; the set sometimes might be a terrarium at a zoo.) Adding to the power are Jon Clark’s lighting and Nick Powell’s sound design and original music, which is played live by Candida Caldicot on an upright piano in front of the stage.
The secret to the production’s success is a paradox: Embedded in this wealth of effects and information are techniques more commonly associated with poor theater. Three exceptional British actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester—play all of the roles, from the founding Lehman Brothers to an assortment of relatives, children, associates and wives. As they shift among personae, often narrating their own characters’ actions, they reshape the set as they go along, using simple cardboard file boxes to evoke different spaces (or metaphorical constructions in sequences that dramatize anxiety dreams, when Hall’s backgrounds are washed in color).
Beale begins The Lehman Trilogy as the sagacious Henry Lehman, who arrives from Bavaria in 1844 and founds the Alabama dry-goods store that will eventually grow into the Lehman financial empire; one of the most compelling stage actors in the world, Beale also transforms himself effortlessly into (among others) Henry’s nephew, the precocious and calculator-brained Philip Lehman, and Philip’s daughter-in-law, a demanding divorcée. Godley charms sweetly as the youngest Lehman, Mayer, and shines as the Yale-educated, white-suited Bobbie Lehman and as a coy New York debutante. Lester, in the least showy track, brings authority to his roles as the practical Emanuel Lehman and, later, the progressive New York governor Herbert Lehman.
The actors’ skill, humor and humanity help personalize The Lehman Trilogy’s depiction of the company’s journey into destructive avarice. At its humble origin, Lehman Brothers has Henry as “the Head,” Emanuel as “the Arm” and Mayer, teasingly known to the others as “the Potato," bridging the two. It is Mayer’s position that leads them to expand beyond the sale of fabrics to the sale of cotton itself, efficiently connecting plantations to factories: “It’s something that we invented,” explains Mayer. “We’re…middlemen.” This early success has a direct connection to a physical product, even if is inexorably linked to the horror of slavery (“Everything that was built here was built on a crime,” notes a Southern doctor). As time goes by, the company diversifies lucratively in directions that chart the evolution of American culture—railroads, transportation, entertainment, computers—but its focus becomes primarily on money itself: “We are merchants of money,” says Philip. “We use money to make more money.” The play walks a careful line in trying to avoid or at least avoid mentioning anti-Semitic tropes, even as it uses the family’s diminishing connection to Jewish cultural and religious practice as a marker for the dynasty's moral decay.
The company’s increasing focus on pure finance, Massini suggests, is built on unsustainable illusions. The sums that the Lehmans make are at once enormous and fundamentally based on nothing—“Zeroes, a long line of zeroes” at the end of numbers—and Wall Street, as metaphorized in the figure of a tightrope walker, is “That street of miracles, where every day men walk on air.” Bobbie Lehman keeps the firm afloat in the Depression by making formerly simple things “so complicated that perhaps they would never again be fully understood.” (This is tied to creating, via breakthroughs in marketing, a world in which “buying will mean living.”)
The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t add much to our understanding of this hubristic final period. After a sensationally macabre death spiral for Bobbie Lehman—the final Lehman to run the company—Massini rushes through a murky sequence that shines little light on its ultimate bankruptcy. This is a marked difference from earlier sections, when business deals are painstakingly explained, and descriptions and details are repeated with ritualistic frequency (sometimes to slightly cloying effect). The play ultimately seems nostalgic for the old ways, even as it casts a critical eye on them, and it loses interest in its own story as they recede. But it leaves you with a broader sense of how deeply the Lehmans and the shifts they helped create have been woven, for better or worse, into the fabric of our lives.
The Lehman Trilogy. Nederlander Theatre (Broadway). By Sefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. With Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Adrian Lester. Running time: 3hrs 20mins. Two intermissions.